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The Job Market: Fizzle or Sizzle?
Legal Assistant Today looks at what is and isn’t hot in paralegal employment trends.
By Rod Hughes
September/October 2001 Issue

Depending on who you speak to, you may hear the U.S. economy has either been put indefinitely on ice following years of unprecedented growth or is simply making a necessary market correction in anticipation of heating up again in 2002. While the pundits pontificate, employees in the legal marketplace are reevaluating their situations, attempting to gauge where the market is headed and how it will impact them.

Legal Assistant Today recently interviewed approximately 10 legal staffing and recruiting firms regarding current hiring trends to determine if what lies ahead is a long, cold economic recovery or if the job market will begin to sizzle again before the new year is ushered in.

A Thaw or the Big Freeze?
In early July, the U.S. Department of Labor released its June report on employment in the United States. The report stated while there has been a one-tenth of a percent increase in the unemployment rate (holding at 4.5 percent at press time), that rate has not changed significantly since April. Additionally, people working part time for economic reasons increased by 266,000 to a total of 3.6 million. People in the part-time category reported wanting to work full time, but were unable to find such work or had their hours reduced. Economic conditions have changed dramatically from last year when, in October 2000, unemployment reached an all-time low of 3.9 percent. A slow-down in the technology and manufacturing sectors has sent ripples through the economy and many employers are now taking preventative measures — including layoffs — to protect themselves should the economy slip into a recession. With some businesses cutting back in anticipation of depressed consumer confidence, law firms are watching the horizon and Wall Street carefully to determine the next course of action.

The Legal Assistant Management Association (LAMA) is also watching economic developments. Meredith Larabee, president of LAMA and director of legal assistants at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix, said LAMA members are worried about the potential direction the U.S. economy may take.

“Concern has been expressed among LAMA members about whether downsizing will take place and whether paralegals will be the first to go if history repeats itself. Others have disagreed saying the higher-priced associates would be the first to go if firms cut back. But I really have not heard of any serious developments [in either case],” Larabee explained. In fact, contrary to some regional trends, Larabee reported that her firm is actively seeking legal assistant employment candidates.

According to results of a survey released in July by The Affiliates, Larabee’s firm is in good company regarding a positive outlook on growth. The Affiliates’ survey included responses from 200 attorneys in the nation’s largest law firms. According to the survey, 92 percent of respondents said they anticipated the number of attorneys in their firms to increase over the next three years.

Whether that confidence will translate into positive reassurances for paralegals remains to be seen.
In truth, legal professionals are either on the cusp of economic recovery or just a few steps away from the beginning of a steep decline.

“The economic slow down which is facing the country is still a fairly new phenomena. As a result, firms are not overreacting. They are simply exercising a little more caution in their hiring practices. It’s likely that if the economy continues to struggle and more industries’ bottom lines are affected, this in turn will negatively affect the hiring of paralegals,” explained Deborah Peters, director of recruiting for Major Legal Services in Cleveland.

Despite noting a slow down — or the potential for a slow down — in several legal markets throughout the United States, placement experts in general are not overly worried about the future of the legal employment marketplace. Many legal staffing professionals are hesitant to sound any alarms, and have emphasized the continued growth of legal assistant opportunities as an important indicator.

Some even pointed to advantages of the slowing economy such as the potential for increased demand for temporary paralegal services and expanding training opportunities for working legal assistants.

However a few areas of concern were consistently noted by the placement experts interviewed.

A Chilling Reception
Some law firms, small to mid-sized firms in particular, have recently slowed or placed a freeze on the hiring of entry-level paralegals.

Terry Murphy, vice president of Kelly Law Registry in Troy, Mich., said his company’s regional offices have reported either a “slight slowdown in hiring or institution of hiring freezes. When firms are hiring, they prefer seasoned veterans for mid- to upper-level pay because these hires will not require extensive training and can produce income faster and at higher billable hours.”

Karen Maheu, managing director for Contract Counsel’s Detroit office concurred with Murphy regarding entry-level paralegals, and noted that in response to the economics of the moment, many firms have placed an emphasis on bringing in seasoned paralegals when hiring. This requirement, according to Maheu, is rooted in the belief that experienced paralegals can be more effective immediately, with less effort and expense in training and correcting learning curves.

“[Firms] are asking for people who do not need training, who have the right educational credentials, and more often, firms are seeking people who have a solid work history,” Maheu explained.

Corporate legal departments are placing increased emphasis on stable work histories to ensure long-term relationships with new hires, according to Merle Isgett, senior director at Spherion Corp., headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Above all, the person must present well and have a track record of reliability and the ability to work independently. Not switching employers frequently [is extremely important],” Isgett explained.

Legal professionals who took advantage of economic growth to raise their salaries, benefits and responsibilities through changing jobs are now finding, according to most recruiters, that the pendulum has swung back in the opposite direction. According to Isgett, periodic changes in employment over the last few years leave employers questioning loyalty and dependability in employment candidates. Paralegals need to demonstrate stability and solid experience to firms. Given the time and expense expended in hiring and training legal assistants, evidence of consistent dedication and loyalty is becoming increasingly important to law firms and corporate legal departments concerned about the economy and paralegal retention. “[Firms] don’t want to see someone who is willing to hop to another firm just to make more money,” Isgett explained.

Those paralegals who have not job hopped excessively and have enjoyed long and rewarding relationships with their employers may actually find their existing roles expanding as firms and legal departments adapt to the marketplace. “Firms are slow to replace paralegals lost through natural attrition. Ideally, they hope to maintain a mix of entry-level and senior staff, but a few seasoned veterans are key,” said Elaine Altamar, director of training and development at Lawcorps Legal Staffing in Washington, D.C.

As such, well-trained and experienced paralegals now have the ability to seek out greater opportunities within their current work environments thanks, in part, to a downturn in the economy. “Specific expertise is always beneficial. Paralegals need to prove their willingness and ability to move where the activity is. Loyalty to the firm’s best interests, attitude and ability to learn quickly are critical,” Altamar said.

Education and Experience Offer Sizzle
Nearly every staffing and recruiting company contacted emphasized the importance of education for paralegals seeking employment. Most highly recommended was a four-year degree from an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved institution in order to grab the attention of law firms and corporate legal departments looking to fill paralegal positions. In addition, according to legal experts interviewed for Legal Assistant Today’s 2000 Salary Survey, published in the March/April 2001 edition, paralegal education is of vital importance for competitive marketplace performance.

“Large law firms are looking for bachelor’s degrees with a 3.0 [grade point average] or better with no legal experience. They have legal assistant managers who can train the entry-level legal assistants. Smaller firms or corporations, however, usually require a bachelor’s degree and a paralegal certificate from an ABA-approved paralegal school. The smaller firms or corporations don’t have the personnel to train, and rely on the schools for [properly] trained people,” according to Pat Taylor, president of Pat Taylor and Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C.

Consistently, each of the staffing and recruiting firms included in Legal Assistant Today’s hiring trends survey noted education as No. 1 on most employers’ lists of priorities, followed immediately by practical experience.

Marsha Fullard Carr, paralegal recruiter for Special Counsel in Washington, D.C. agreed. “Many large firms consider a bachelor’s degree a prerequisite for consideration of the applicant’s resumé. Smaller firms are usually more flexible regarding this requirement. However, the most important criteria overall is probably years of experience.”

The Cold Shoulder
Unfortunately, there are times when a strength can become, at least for a time, a weakness as well.
Although Carr and other placement, education and paralegal experts all agree on the importance of practical experience, there are rare instances when such vital skills and experience can work against you.

Marilyn Dupies, CLA, CAS, knows this all too well.

Dupies graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1977 and had worked as a paralegal for 23 years. During her employment with solo practitioner George E. Moore, she had a great deal of autonomy and handled cases, as she said, “from start to finish” under Moore’s direction. In August 2000, Dupies’ employer of 17 years, Moore died of pancreatic cancer.

When it became obvious he was losing his battle with cancer, Dupies began planning for the future and tried to find employment.

“One firm told me I would be bored. Another firm told me I was too advanced to fit into the structure of their firm. I was dismayed,” Dupies explained.

While she sent out large numbers of resumés and contacted recruiters regularly, Dupies said her job search took nearly five months, and she said the process was daunting. Meanwhile, she spent three long months closing up Moore’s practice while continuing to search for meaningful employment.

“My skill level and my age were both a detriment in searching for a job. I see that as unreasonable. Unfortunately, most firms don’t have paralegals who do work as varied as I was doing. As a result, many attorneys have not really learned how to efficiently utilize a paralegal,” Dupies explained.

Fortunately for Dupies, her search, thanks to a tip offered by an expert Moore had worked with, came to a close in December of last year when she accepted a position with Lopez, Hodes, Restaino, Milman, Skikos & Polos in Newport Beach, Calif.

For those paralegals actively seeking employment, Dupies recommends remaining positive about your abilities. “You can adapt your skills to a new environment, but patience is a big factor. You also will need to be careful to manage your frustration with the entire [employment search] process,” she said.

Dupies also explained that one of the drawbacks to her vast experience as a legal assistant was that potential employers may have seen her as too expensive to employ.

Another paralegal, whose name was withheld from publication, has plunged into a situation similar to that of Dupies. With more than 20 years of experience, Bill Jones (not his real name) is considering changing firms after a long and successful history with his current employer.

However, Jones reported being told by potential employers he was too experienced. He also said he was convinced the problem had more to do with salary than skill.

Both Dupies and Jones agreed searching for a job is frustrating business. Adding to the frustration is the knowledge that, at least at the beginning of each of their searches, the skills and experience they both have struggled for over the years are working against them.

Lukewarm Opinions
From full-time employment searches to working for yourself, a number of paralegals have attempted to take advantage of both the highs and the lows of recent economic conditions.

For instance, when unemployment figures were at their lowest in 1999 and 2000, many paralegals looked to other firms and corporations to increase their own bottom lines. Now some paralegals are hoping the road less travelled — that of freelance or contract work — will hold its own rewards as the economy shifts from prosperity to just “puddering along,” as President Bush recently said.

Freelance or contract paralegal opportunities are a bit of a mixed bag, according to respondents. Six out of 10 placement agencies reported freelance and contract opportunities were remaining strong or increasing, while four reported flat or negative growth.

“In this climate, we are seeing a steady increase in contract paralegal [work]. This climate fluctuates with the economy. In an excellent economic climate, we see an increase in permanent placements. In a recessive economy, we see an increase in contract paralegal [opportunities],” Taylor reported.

However, Loren Lee Mustion, regional director with Spherion’s Legal Group, disagreed with Taylor’s assessment of the current legal market, at least in immediate terms.

Noting the tight labor market of early 2000, Mustion said the search for direct hire and temporary or freelance paralegals was slow. “In the fourth quarter of 2000, temporary and direct hire business began to taper off as the economy began to slow. The first half of 2001 continues to show a decrease in temporary staffing,” Mustion said.

In the long term, however, Mustion said she sees merit in Taylor’s opinion, noting she believes the continued demand for paralegal services in the legal market will facilitate general growth, thus maintaining or even increasing the need for temporary or freelance paralegal services.

Murphy took a more middle of the road approach, stating some Kelly Law Registry offices reported decreasing contract opportunities for paralegals, while other offices reported such opportunities remained static or had recently increased.

“Rather than hire, [firms and corporations] will utilize temps to handle the increased work until they are comfortable that the work will be there down the road and they can add to the headcount,” Murphy said.

Regional Hot Spots
A few placement agencies consistently noted there are a few regional hot spots where paralegal opportunities continue to grow at better than average rates.

One such example of growing opportunity is the nation’s capital. According to Murphy, Washington, D.C. consistently offers a warm welcome to entry-level paralegals, “especially in early spring when most firms are evaluating their needs for the next six months.” Isgett and Taylor concurred, citing the Washington, D.C. metro area as fertile ground for entry-level paralegals looking for opportunities to break into the legal industry.

In addition, other high-profile areas such as Atlanta, New York City, central Florida, Boston and Chicago, report continued growth opportunities for entry-level paralegals. Northeast Ohio also offers employment opportunities, however, Peters cautioned she is seeing signs indicating a possible increase in competition for legal assistant positions in that region. A similar scenario is being played out in San Francisco where Isgett said competition for entry-level paralegal positions remains strong following the area’s recent dot-com shakedown.

Coupled with strong educational backgrounds, such opportunities could be a boon to entry-level paralegals willing to relocate for the right opportunity. However, it’s important to note that anyone considering relocating for employment purposes should take care to conduct appropriate, independent research with local newspapers, legal publications, employment agencies, local associations and employers to support reports of regional opportunity.

What’s Hot, What’s Not
Legal Assistant Today asked placement experts to identify paralegal specialty areas that are either benefiting or suffering due to the economy.

Respondents were nearly unanimous in identifying key areas affected by the current developments in the marketplace.

For instance, legal transactional work related to the telecommunications sector seems to have fallen off steeply throughout the nation, according to Murphy. It seems technology practice areas in general have also slowed somewhat on both coasts.

Mustion said she noticed a slow down in corporate and real estate practices, with many transactional practices in general beginning to reflect the pressures of a downward market trend.

Spherion reported it experienced a significant decrease in demand for corporate paralegals during the first half of 2001.

“We are seeing a decrease in the demand for corporate paralegals as many corporate departments are downsizing,” Isgett reported.

On the positive side, Major Legal Services’ Peters noted a “recent increase in the number of litigation and bankruptcy searches (for legal assistants) that are being conducted by our company.”

Specialty areas reaping rewards are, according to respondents, bankruptcy, general litigation, international trade, trust and estate law, and intellectual property. In fact, according to Spherion representatives, intellectual property paralegals are increasingly in demand despite current economic circumstances.

Murphy confirmed Spherion’s assessment, stating he is receiving reports of steady intellectual property legal needs.

Taking the Chill Off
So what should a legal assistant do to protect him or herself in a tight economic environment?

Murphy recommended paralegals take the opportunity to increase their knowledge of technology and computer skills to position themselves best in the job market. “Become as technologically proficient as possible. The more a paralegal can do free through the Internet (fact finding, legal research, etc.) and the better a paralegal can manage documents electronically, the more valuable the paralegal is to the employer,” he said. Given the increased penetration of technology into the legal market, every placement specialist interviewed emphasized technical skills as a high priority to remain marketable in the workforce.

Isgett warned paralegals not to “overestimate their value. There are not the opportunities there once were to go in-house and snub the law firms.”

However, in a recent independent survey conducted by Kelly Law Registry of 1,400 attorneys and paralegals, 74 percent indicated they felt confident they would be able to successfully change jobs within the legal industry during the next three years despite current economic developments.

A few trends that have lent themselves to the confidence evidenced in the Kelly survey are increased cross training, improvements in technical skills and improved availability and quality of continuing legal education programs. “Acquire as many skills as possible and diversify your experience. People who can do more than work in [just] one area of law are able to afford potential employers a broader range of skills and make themselves more marketable,” Isgett recommended.

Temperate Flux
Given the lack of a clear, long-term economic direction, placement specialists encouraged paralegals to take heart as the market fluctuates and to conduct thorough, independent research when seeking employment opportunities.

“Since the economic climate is still a question mark, it may be premature to [make rash assumptions],” Murphy said. “Most of our branches don’t foresee any major impending legal industry cutbacks. Certainly we have seen some practice area slow downs.”

Recruiters and staffing firms highly recommend paralegals take advantage of continuing legal education, seek out training opportunities in areas of law different from their current practice areas and, for those who find themselves unemployed, consider temporary or contract work opportunities.

The good news for paralegals concerned about getting caught in a downsizing squeeze or locked out of the market by hiring freezes is, in general, qualified paralegal employment candidates are not unemployed for long. “Paralegals with great experience are very marketable, and usually are able to find work quickly,” Carr said.

The consensus among placement specialists seems to be that paralegals with a solid educational background and experience can find work within a reasonable time period, although opinions vary on how long an unemployed paralegal might be out of the market. “This is difficult to gauge, but a strong paralegal should not be in the [unemployment] market for longer than three months,” according to Altamar, which is reassuring for many legal assistants concerned about the job market. Dupies’ and Jone’s experiences notwithstanding, placement experts agree the legal job market remains open, even if that opening is somewhat smaller than before.

And while there are no guarantees where paralegals are concerned, staffing experts agree that by taking advantage of a few of the measures listed here, you can increase the likelihood of insulating yourself from cutbacks.

For resources to help you in your particular employment search, check out Legal Assistant Today on the Web at www.legalassistanttoday.com for tips and advice, along with a “Links” section that includes staffing and recruiting resources to assist you in your search.

According to Peters, the best advice is also the most practical: “The best way that paralegals can protect themselves is to perform their jobs diligently and professionally so they are indispensable to the success of the company or firm.”


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